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Croatia tames Atlas Lions of Morocco with 2 sublime goals in third-place playoff

The FIFA World Cup third-place playoff always takes place under the shadow cast by the next day's monumentous final, but they have a tendency to entertain as two losing semifinalists unshackle themselves from pressure and anxiety to secure bronze for proud footballing nations.

Saturday's third-place playoff didn't disappoint as Croatia and Morocco, after both failing to score in the semis, exchanged goals in the opening 10 minutes before Mislav Oršić put the Checkered Ones ahead before halftime with a stunner that proved game-winner.

There are always key players missing in this match as the wear and tear of the tournament is finally acknowledged and injured footballers are rested rather than risked, so the starting lineups were without Romain Saïss and Noussair Mazraoui for Morocco and Dejan Lovren and Marcelo Brozović for Croatia.

But many of the stars still came to play, and that was evident on Croatia's seventh-minute opener with Luka Modrić's lovely free kick finding Ivan Perišić for a spectacularly cushioned header that met Joško Gvardiol's diving effort. What a set piece.

But Morocco responded two minutes later with a set piece of their own that really just relied on Croatia's Lovro Majer — his attempted defensive header looped straight to Achraf Dari to nod home from close range for an equalizer.  

Now it was time for a brilliant goal from open play. Three minutes before halftime, a sweeping Croatia attack appeared to break down in Morocco's area, but the ball found its way out wide for Mislav Oršić and the winger picked out the far corner with a delicately curled lob that went in off the post. Bono was beaten again.   

The first 20 minutes of the second half saw a flurry of substitutions from both teams as everyone's hamstrings finally failed them. Morocco used all five and Croatia made three changes.

In the 74th, it looked like Gvardiol had been taken down after the center back surged forward into Morocco's area, and replays showed that he'd clearly been kicked to the ground. The Qatari referee didn't give it and the VAR wasn't interested.

The competition was only interested in a Morocco equalizer, but Croatia keeper Dominik Livaković didn't get the message.

Another hugely partisan crowd at Khalifa International Stadium roared Morocco forward in the final 10 minutes, but the Atlas Lions looked truly gassed in their seventh game of the tournament and coming off just two days rest since the semis.   

Despite ending with two defeats, Morocco makes history with Africa's best-ever World Cup finish in fourth place. After earning silver in 2018, Croatia, with its population of just 3.9 million, takes bronze in 2022. They also got third in 1998.  

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